Kirtpal Kaur Aujla, Partner at Bevan Brittan considers what the future holds for children’s services in the UK
The crisis facing children’s social care is on an unprecedented scale. The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by children. It has sparked debate over the link between poverty and health inequalities. The crisis, however, cannot be placed solely at the door of Covid.
Local authorities have been managing ever-increasing demand for a prolonged period. The figures over the past 10 years are almost unbelievable – the LGA in response to the Spending Review 2021 noted that the number of looked after children has risen from 57 in every 100,000 in 2009-10 to 67 in every 100,000 in 2019-20. Budgets for children’s social care however, have substantially reduced over the same period.
How long can local authorities continue to manage the significant pressure on the purse strings without the system failing the most vulnerable?
Statutory interventions – a new structure?
Bradford City Council is the latest to go into the highest form of intervention from the Secretary of State for Education joining interventions in Doncaster, Slough, Sunderland, Reading, Birmingham, Sandwell, Worcestershire and Northamptonshire. These authorities have been required to establish forms of corporate vehicles or Trusts to provide social care services on behalf of those authorities that are consistently failing in service provision.
The escalation at Bradford to this high level of intervention appears to have been sparked by the appalling case of Star Hobson.
Trusts remain controversial. Essentially, a special purpose vehicle with a new leadership model and corporate accountability, with a transfer of staff and assets from the local authority alongside some injection of central government funding. Certainly, there are lessons to learn from these early adopter projects. Arguably, it is the substantive operation rather than the vehicle itself that drives the change. Cultural change and accountability is once facet of what is needed to drive systemic change.
Early Trust models such as the Doncaster Children’s Trust and Sunderland’s Together for Children provide great success stories. Others such as Birmingham Children’s Trust, within the first year of establishment, pulled the authority out of inadequate for the first time in over ten years being judged by Ofsted as “requires improvement to be good”.
The Case for Change
What is the role of central government in driving change? We have seen a number of policies and support including the establishment of Trusts, the Regional Adoption Agency Programme, Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to name a few.
Most recently, we have heard senior voices calling for substantive change to align central government approaches with local government. Ade Adetosoye, Chief Executive of the London Borough of Bromley and the lead for children and families at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, at a recent webinar held by the Lords Public Services Committee called for a single department and line of accountability to “turbo charge” outcomes.
In January 2021, central government commissioned the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England, led by Josh McAlister.
The Care Review’s final report with recommendations for change is expected this year. Its interim report, “A Case for Change”, was published in June 2021. The Case for Change calls for system wide reform and a change in practice and culture of child protection and social work.
The Review has an ambitious remit to review the whole children’s social care system and ask the question: “How do we ensure children grow up in loving, stable and safe families and, where that is not possible, care provides the same foundation?”.
Local authority commissioning portfolios in children’s social care and education are vast. Support is needed to align with co-ordinated central government initiatives both from a funding and policy perspective.
Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector in her annual report acknowledged the lack of “silver bullet” in tackling the problems being faced by children’s social care. Whilst there is no clear fix for the crisis, chronic underfunding needs to be addressed. The short term funding announcements in 2021 arecertainly welcome but to drive long-term change a substantive change in funding from central government is required.
The LGA estimates that an additional £2.7 billion in funding is required over the next three years. This will support existing service provision – how can we drive innovation and support sustainability?
There are many options to drive transformation, ranging from strategic partnerships to Trusts. Reform through early help and prevention programmes should be a key component to building organisational resilience. Authorities need the resources to safeguard those on the cusp of social care intervention falling deep into the system.
Strategic support and funding for the prevention agenda are imperative to enable local authorities to start to chip away at the funding gap.
 Spending Review 2021 Submission | Local Government Association
 Ofsted Annual Report 2020/21 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
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